How much do we know about the life of Jesus? In terms of biographical data, we know almost nothing. Apart from birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and a description, in Luke, of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at age twelve, we know nothing of His first thirty-odd years. It is only that last two to three years that we have a substantive picture, and even then the sum total of the written accounts covers no more than forty days, and only the last week receives intense coverage.
Some information can be reasonably inferred from scripture. He had four brothers and some sisters. He probably was the breadwinner of the family after the death of Joseph (Mark 6.3). And he lived as a pious Jew (Luke 4:16).
"Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3)
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. (Luke 4:16)
The HometownJesus grew up in Nazareth. It was not idyllic as it is often portrayed. It lay on the main highway connecting Egypt and Syria, a road often used by the armies of Rome.
The Romans appointed Herod "The Great" King of Judea in 40 B.C. Herod attempted to Hellenize Judea, building temples to Roma and Augustus in Caesarea and Samaria. Ultimately he went to far when he placed a Roman eagle at the entrance to the temple. A rebellion ensued, and it was crushed by Rome.
Herod died in 4 BC, and the political turmoil continued. That year, the governor of Syria, Quintilius Varus, put down a revolt in Judea by crucifying two thousand men, as described by Josephus:
Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. After which he disbanded his army, which he found no way useful to him in the affairs he came about; for they behaved themselves very disorderly, and disobeyed his orders, and what Varus desired them to do, and this out of regard to that gain which they made by the mischief they did. (Josephus, Antiquities, XVII, 10.10).In particular nine years later, when Jesus was about twelve years old, there was a major insurrection lead by one Judas of Galilee. This too is described by Josephus
… Judea was reduced into a province, and Coponius, one of the equestrian order among the Romans, was sent as a procurator, having the power of death put into his hands by Caesar. Under his administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans and would after God submit to mortal men as their lords. This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders. (Josephus, War of the Jews, II 8.1)It is also described in the book of Acts
33When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (Acts 7:33-37)The Sanhedrin was the Jewish Supreme court. The men being discussed were the apostles, in particular Peter and John. And the Pharisee preaching restraint, Gamaliel, has a very famous (and less tolerant) student, Saul of Tarsus, but more of him anon.
The No-Tax Party
It is significant that the rebellion of Judas of Galilee was about refusal to pay a tribute to Caesar. For one thing, the party founded by Judas of Galilee and his followers was called the Zealots, known for their passion in opposing Roman rule. Understanding that the Galilean’s rebellion was still on the minds of the people, and that the Zealots were still spreading insurrection, and that one of Jesus' apostles was a Zealot1, gives you a better appreciation of Jesus' exchange on this same matter:
15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" 18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" 21"Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matt. 22:15-21)
All these rebellions were leading inevitably to the Jewish War of AD 66-70, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the razing of the temple, and death of over a million Jews.
Jesus the RabbiIn opposition to the Zealots were the chief priests who sought to maintain a semblance of order through cooperation with the Romans. One of the most successful chief priests was Caiaphas, who was chief priest for eighteen years, during the last ten of which Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea.
The Sanhedrin, or the Supreme Court, was dominated by one party: the Sadducees. However, another important party were the Pharisees, which included a group called the "scribes", who were the master apologists of the divine law.
The Pharisees were of two major schools, the Shammai and the Hillel. The Shammai were more conservative and legalistic, while the house of Hillel were liberal. To which school did the teaching of Jesus the rabbi fall? Neither.
There is an anecdote from that period which goes like this. A would-be proselyte went to a Pharisee of each school, and requested that the entire law be summarized while he stood on one leg. The Shammai scolded him severely and sent him away, while the Hillel said: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.
Sounds like the Golden rule as taught by Jesus (Matt 7:12). Perhaps Jesus was of the house of Hillel. But no, consider divorce. Hillel made divorce easy. Shammai made it difficult. Jesus made it nearly impossible.
So Jesus' teachings did not fit neatly into either school, But what was worse (from their perspective) is that Jesus, implicitly and explicitly, taught that he was the Messiah.
Did Jesus, from a child, know that he was the Messiah? We can only speculate, but the answer would seem to be yes. Our only account of his youth comes from Luke. During Jesus' Passover trip to Jerusalem at age twelve, he became separated from his parents. After a frantic search, they find him in the temple courts. Jesus says to them:
49Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" 50But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:49-50)His public life began with Baptism, and when He came up out of the water, the voice of God announced: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Matt. 1:11). After baptism, he was tempted by Satan, who repeatedly challenges his Messiahship by prefacing his temptations with "If you are the Son of God".
The next few months were spent in southern Palestine, in contact with John the Baptist (c.f. John 3:22 ff). After John was imprisoned in the fall of A.D. 28, Jesus went north to Galilee and commenced his public ministry. He recruited some young Galileans2 whom he met as disciples of John on the shores of the Jordan. Among his twelve closest followers were, as already mentioned, a member of the party of the Zealots and also a tax collector. The inclusion of these two also distinguishes Jesus from the Pharisees, be they Shammai or Hillel, as would his subsequent association with other sinners.
In the early days of his ministry, Jesus went about the countryside preaching and performing miracles. The miracles (in the canonical gospels) were never miracles for their own sake, but served as points of departure for his teaching., and provided mounting evidence that He was the Messiah. Today, many liberal Christians want to strip Jesus of his supernatural deeds and preserve only His ethical teachings. (In response, some have quipped, “who would even bother to crucify the Jesus of liberal Christianity.) It is interesting to note, however, that in the earliest days even the enemies of Christ did not deny his miracles, they attributed them to evil:
But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons." (Matt. 12:24)As late as A.D. 133, the Christian theologian Quandratus, in arguing with the Emperor Hadrian, could point to the miracles without having to defend them per se, for their validity was accepted by his opponents.
Jesus' message began to make His claim as Messiah more explicit. In Mark, we read:
They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22).What was meant by this is that Jesus felt free to teach new meaning to old words, beginning many teachings with "You have heard that it was said…, but I say to you…". Jesus tossed out the accumulated teachings of centuries, in no place more apparent than in his teachings on the Sabbath.
He healed on the Sabbath. His disciples picked grain on the Sabbath. He argued with the Pharisees about the significance of the Sabbath, that the Sabbath was made for man and not vice versa, and making one of his most explicit claims of divinity, that "The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath." (Matt. 12:8)
Jesus tossed out huge portions of the ceremonial law, causing the rift between his teachings and those of the Pharisees (of both main houses) to widen further:
For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") (Mark 7:19)If Jesus' radical teaching on the Sabbath and his reinterpreting of the old texts weren’t bad enough, then there is more. He began to go beyond radical. He began to assert for Himself the power to forgive sins:
Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." (Matt. 9:2)
The rift between Jesus and the scribes was complete. So much so that Jesus no longer had access to the synagogue, and retreated to the countryside and the shore to teach to the crowds. At this time he sends His apostles throughout the country, two by two, to spread the gospel. When they returned, Jesus led them to a remote spot on the shore of Lake Galilee, but still the masses converged upon Him.
At this time His teaching changed somewhat, to the so-called "hard" teachings. So hard, in fact, that John tells us that many of his disciples abandoned Him:
60On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"It is now about April of A.D. 29, and about six months of His Galilean ministry has passed. A period of more intense, more private instruction for his disciples followed. They left Palestine and headed north to Phoenicia, returning via Caesarea Philippi. It was in Caesarea Philippi that Peter affirmed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, bringing great joy to Jesus, in what may have been a personal zenith of His ministry (see Matt. 6:13-19).
66From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:60, 66)
The End is NearEarly in A.D. 30, Jesus raised His friend Lazarus (of Bethany) from the dead. The commotion caused by this miracle spread throughout Judea. The Sanhedrin decided that it was finally time to act, fearing that Jesus’ followers would ultimately attempt a rebellion that would bring severe Roman retribution upon the land.
About a week before Passover, Jesus and His disciples, who had been resting, headed to Jerusalem. Near Jericho they merged with a large group of pilgrims also heading to Jerusalem, and the crowed hailed Jesus as they neared and entered the city.
Two or three days before Passover, Jesus was attended by Mary the sister of Lazarus. Mary broke an expensive ointment and poured it over his head. Judas was particularly incensed by the extravagance. In fact there were many views of this act: some saw it as the anointing of a king. Judas, as we mentioned, saw it as a waste. Mary may have been simply displaying love and gratitude for the miracle of her brother’s life. But Jesus, alone, saw it as a burial anointment.
On Thursday evening, Jesus celebrated the Passover feast at the house of a friend in Jerusalem. Later, they left the house in the cool of the night to the Garden of Gethsemane. After prayer, the police, led to the spot by Judas, arrested Him. After an ineffectual resistance, his disciples fled, and Jesus was taken to the high priest’s palace. There He was tried by the Sanhedrin, which was called into emergency session. Some argue that the court was illegal, but it is likely that it was perfectly legal for the court to be summoned to an emergency session. (Although the fact that the trial had a predetermined outcome was certainly illegal.)
The trial, from the Sanhedrin's perspective, did not go well. The witnesses, who testified to Jesus' "terroristic" threat about the destruction of the temple, were so awful that their testimony had to be tossed out. With no credible eyewitnesses to a crime, only one thing could save the day for the Sanhedrin: a confession to blasphemy. Jesus obliged. Caiaphas asked of Him, "Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.", to which Jesus replied "Yes, it is as you say"(Matt. 26:57-65). Nothing more was needed. Jesus was taken to Pilate, who, after a certain amount of resistance, acceded to the will of the Sanhedrin and the mob and ordered that Jesus be crucified. (Note: it is often taught that the same people who hailed Jesus as He entered Jerusalem screamed for His death less than a week later. It is probably not the case. The former were pilgrims who accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem, the latter were local Jews, a city)
The ResurrectionIn the Passover season of A.D. 30, Jesus was crucified. Not of his followers shared his death, for they all fled at the time of His arrest. His closest disciple, the one most demonstrative in his promise of steadfastness, joined the crowed temple courtyard, only to deny Jesus when he was identified as a follower by his appearance and his Galilean accent.
At first appearances, if Christianity depended on Jesus' apostles, the Christianity would be expected to have withered and died with the arrest of Jesus.
A scant seven weeks later, at Pentecost, there was, as always, a great Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In what can be calculated as Sunday, May 28, A.D. 30, a group of native and foreigners gathered around a group of intense, confident preachers. Miraculously, The preaching of these men was heard by the foreigners in their own native languages (Acts 2.4). One of those speaking explained that they spoke in tongues not through drunkenness but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Some believed, some didn’t, but nobody disputed the passion of the speaker, the same Peter who had denied Christ at His arrest.
A group of men who abandoned their leader at the first sign of trouble, a leader who died in humiliation displaying no power to save himself, should have scattered with the four winds, back to Galilee and hoping to forget their foolishness in following such an impotent master.
Instead, they were boldly preaching in His name.
What happened? What snatched victory from the jaws of defeat? To the crowd, Peter explains the amazing event that restored their faith and their nerve:
23This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:23-24).Without the resurrection, and without multiple eyewitness accounts of the risen Jesus, Christianity would have died. The most compelling evidence for the truth of the resurrection is that the apostles, in the midst of total defeat, began to proclaim boldly that Jesus was the Son of God, and that His death accomplished salvation for believers. If his body lay rotting in a tomb, it would have been unthinkable for Peter to proclaim a putrefying Lord and savior.
The earliest teaching of the church centered on the fact that Christ was bodily raised from the dead, and that many, including his closest friends, had seen him. More than 500 saw him.
There have been many attempted explanations, but the one that is dismissed by any thoughtful critic of Christianity is deception, for our common human nature screams to us that, no matter what, the behavior of the apostles demonstrates that they believed Christ had been resurrected. It might be argued that the belief is erroneous, but its sincerity is not questioned.
Some have argued for hallucinations as an explanation. But if those who claim to have seen him were hallucinating, you would expect that they would see Him where He wasn't. Instead, they didn’t see him where He was, for example with those disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 22:13ff).
The period of forty days between His resurrection and Ascension is sometimes fraught with confusion. During those forty days, Christ makes various appearances, but after the Ascension He is not seen again (except by Paul.) This leads many to believe that He was resurrected and lived on earth for forty days, and then went to heaven. This is not the case. He was not popping in now and then, and the rest of the time holed in a motel. He was already exalted and was visiting at times during those forty days, and the Ascension marks the terminus of those visits.
1 Simon the Zealot. was believed to have preached the Gospel throughout North Africa, from Egypt to Mauritania, and even into Britain. There is a church tradition which says that he was crucified by the Romans in Caistor, Lincolnshire, Britain and subsequently buried there on May 10, circa 61 A.D. This cannot be confirmed, however, as there is also a strong tradition which says, that having left Britain, Simon, at some point , went to Persia and was martyred there by being sawn into two.
2Of the twelve, it appears that only one, Judas Iscariot, was a southerner, or a Judean.